With the advent of the #MeToo movement, the time is right to hold serious conversations not only about sexual harassment and assault but more generally about the complexity of relationships between men and women. While we must examine the dichotomy that some men display between their professed attitudes and their actual behavior toward women, we must also leave room for open-ended conversations where men and women can be honest, forthright, and open-minded. As the movement unfolds, more questions than answers arise. How do we determine whether that awkward joke was truly inappropriate? If I want to report something I have seen or heard, to whom do I report it? How can we guard against false accusations and/or retaliation for reporting? What about the man who has been harassed by a woman? Should someone who is accused be fired immediately? And so on. There are so many questions with few clear answers. Until we can get to a point where everyone feels that they can be truly heard, not only by their peers, but by the opposite gender, it will be hard to make progress and answer these difficult questions.
There are many voices speaking out for the necessity of having these difficult conversations. Some, like Mika Brzezinski, have floated some general guidelines for the workplace. Others, such as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, believe that we are at a point of reckoning. “I think the entire world is now ready for this conversation,” Senator Gillibrand said in an interview. “And I think it really was brought on by the election of President Trump.” Clearly, we need several types of conversations, but we mostly need for men and women to stop feeling they are on opposite sides and to begin communicating. Assault and harassment have been framed as “women’s issues”, but in reality they are issues for all members of our society. When any one of us is hurt or marginalized, we all experience the consequences. Men are in relationship with women by virtue of many connections including family, personal friendships, and professional relationships. As such, what happens to women affects them as well.
It is time for men and women to work on solving the gender divide together through respectful discourse. Presently, there are many barriers to this type of discourse including the language that is used in discussing gender equality. Tinna Nielsen of Move the Elephant for Inclusiveness, points out that much of the language used implies that women need fixing. For example, when business leaders talk about empowering women it suggests that women need “fixing” or “helping.” Julia Penelope, American linguist, “explained how grammatical shifts created a ‘blaming the victim passive voice’–thus ‘John beat Mary’ became ‘Mary is a battered woman,’ taking the perpetrator entirely out of the equation by deleting the active voice.”
Another barrier to consider is some men’s attitudes toward gender issues in general. Noted columnist Stephen Marche believes that men must begin having conversations about their masculinity. In Marche’s article “The Unexamined Brutality of the Male Libido”, he proposes that the male libido is a driving force in much of our culture, economy, and politics. He writes that men have not learned to talk about their sexuality in a meaningful way. “Men arrive at this moment of reckoning woefully unprepared. Most are shocked by the reality of women’s lived experience. Almost all are uninterested or unwilling to grapple with the problem at the heart of all this: the often ugly and dangerous nature of the male libido.” He believes that until men examine their inborn sexual nature as a group, we cannot move forward as a society to a place of equality.
Jackson Katz believes that because assault is primarily a problem of men, the solution has to come from men. Mr. Katz has spent the past few decades providing anti-gender violence training to men and women in the military, higher education, and businesses. In these trainings, Katz introduces participants to the idea that sexual and domestic violence are not situations that “good guys” need to help out with. He argues that they are men’s issues about which men from all ethnic and racial backgrounds need to be educated, especially leaders.
If Mr. Marche and Mr. Katz are correct, then perhaps we should work to shift the culture so that it is not only acceptable, but expected, for men to talk about their sexuality without the discussion turning into a toxic contest of masculinity. While men do need to have some of these conversations on their own, we ultimately need to be moving toward honest conversations between women and men. This is territory that is rife with opportunities for hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and possible detrimental results. Therefore, it is very important that those having these conversations establish a zone of respect and confidentiality so that participants can feel safe in voicing their true thoughts. Facilitation by leaders trained in deep listening techniques combined with open-ended questions would be especially beneficial. Workshops could include videos showing somewhat ambiguous situations and participants could write down their responses and then share them as a place to start conversation. Finally, the goal of the conversations is not to try to change anyone’s mind, but rather to listen to one another to gain understanding of another’s perspective. Community conversations, open forums at places of work, and schools are places where interested people can begin to explore this type of conversation.
Beyond organized, facilitated conversations like those mentioned above, we can all begin with those within our personal circles. Call your family members of the opposite gender and see if they are willing to enter into a deep conversation with you on the topic of gender relations. You never know what you might learn. Invite them to pay the conversation forward with another person of the opposite gender. On an individual basis, we can get a movement going by being brave enough to simply talk about the issues. Look around at your family, friends, and community and see who you can start talking to!
Some questions to get you started:
- What are your general thoughts about the #MeToo movement? What questions does it bring up for you? What parts of the movement makes you uncomfortable?
- How do you think our culture treats the bodies of women vs. men?
- In what ways does our culture hurt men? Women?
- What common phrases within our language support misogyny or misandry?
- What are some ways that you can personally make a commitment to improving gender relations?
As you ponder these questions, I invite you to post some of your answers in the comments section if you feel comfortable doing so. Beginning a serious dialogue is our first step. Let’s take it together!